Visual Sociology Research Paper

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Visual sociology employs images and other visual displays to analyze society and culture. As an emerging focus for study, it draws on two intellectual impulses that reflect a more general preoccupation with the visual. The first impulse is committed to using visual methods for research into human affairs and appeared roughly when Ph.D. programs in sociology were being established in America. The second impulse is concerned with the meanings of a culture’s visual representations and has deeper roots in Western intellectual history.

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Interest in developing visual methods for scientific research is almost as old as the camera itself. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, anthropologists, physiologists, criminologists, eugenicists, and others had developed research agendas that used photography—and in some cases moving pictures—to produce evidentiary materials that were central to their arguments, whether as data or as illustrations. Sociologists, however, tended to use photographs and other visual displays more timidly and then only to illustrate an argument or to orient the reader to a topic under discussion (e.g., as maps and conceptual diagrams).

Professional sociology in the twentieth century developed its identity as a field of study by defining its subject matter as superorganic, consisting of elements and processes that could not be reduced to the biology or psychology of the individual. Contemporary researchers— such as Francis Galton, Edward Curtis, William Herbert Sheldon, and Cesare Lombroso, to mention a few—who used photographs as data, however, relied on somatic evidence for theories that social scientists succeeded in portraying as racist and social Darwinist. The photographs they took were tainted as emblems of pseudoscience and inhibited sociologists from experimenting with more acceptable research applications of the medium. For all intents and purposes, sociologists did not seriously explore the use of photographic and other images in social research until the publication of Becker’s (1974) influential essay “Photography and Sociology” (see also Becker 1986).

When visual sociology was first established in 1983 with the formation of the International Visual Sociology Association (IVSA), it was able to draw on a rich body of preexisting work in anthropology, psychology, proxemics, and documentary photography and film. Mead and Bateson’s (1942) pioneering use of ethnographic film and photography in Bali (see also Mead and Macgregor 1951) and Collier and Collier’s (1986) Visual Anthropology were especially important influences in the development of an empirical visual sociology.

The second impulse, an interest in visual representation and the interpretation of images, has been an abiding preoccupation of Western intellectuals since the Renaissance. Furthermore, art history and criticism has not only defined an ever-expanding canon of culturally resonant images— mostly in the form of painting and the plastic arts—but also nurtured numerous interpretative frameworks and methodologies, which continue to influence all who are interested in making sense of cultural products that are communicated visually. Sociological interest in interpreting the images produced by a culture has also been piqued by the growing cultural and social influence of the mass media on popular culture since the turn of the twentieth century. The mass media’s presence in everyday life has grown steadily, because each innovation has added to the total hours of the day that the population spends consuming its products.

Beginning with the work of neo-Marxists in the 1930s, sociology has been influenced by waves of critical conflict theory that have flowered into “postmodernism.” From this vantage point, Benjamin (1979), the Frankfurt School of sociology, Williams (1981), and Hall (Morley and Chen 1996) form a lineage culminating in the rise of cultural and visual studies (Elkins 2003). Barthes (1967, 1993) has been particularly influential in studying the visual products of a culture and argues that cultural products are best seen as systems of signs, whose core meanings are defined by their relationship to each other rather than to their referents. This assumption justifies applying insights and techniques derived from the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure to the analysis of nonlinguistic cultural realms. With the stroke of Barthes’s pen, therefore, it became possible to interpret images and visually perceptible aspects of material culture without recourse to the methodological constraints of empirical social science. The result is a tidal wave of scholarship on a wide range of topics. For the most part, this literature deals with social fractures such as race, class, and gender or politically and culturally contested issues such as homosexuality, body image, and stereotyping in various media and genres. Whether the focus is on the content of a set of images or how they are received by their audiences, these studies of feature films, popular television programs, collectibles— postcards, dolls, T-shirts, and so on—clothing styles, body decoration, home interiors, and myriad other representations in popular culture have become an abiding interest for many contemporary visual sociologists.

Visual sociologists interested in improving visual research methods and committed to broadening and strengthening empirical social science include Banks (2001), Chalfen (1987), Grady (1996), Harper (2000), Pauwels (2000), Prosser (1998), Rieger (1996), and Wagner (1979a). Those who mostly interpret visual representations are engaged with postmodern theory in the humanities, literature, the fine arts, and cultural studies. They include Chaplin (1994) and Pink (2001).

Each group, therefore, has a very different notion of where a more visual sociology should take the discipline as a whole: toward either a reinvigorated and more integrated social science or a new kind of culturological study of signs and representations unencumbered by disciplinary boundaries. It is important to acknowledge, however, that both these competing visions of visual sociology define images as concepts, or in Becker’s (1974) formulation, “For any picture, ask yourself what question or questions it might be answering?” (p. 4).

During the last decade and a half, numerous attempts have been made to define the conceptual structure and disciplinary boundaries of visual sociology. Emmison and Smith (2000), for example, argue that visual researchers should focus on enhancing observational skills. From their perspective, the construction and interpretation of images, therefore, is a weak substitute for cultivating the neglected art of seeing. Most visual sociologists, however, consider working with images to be a necessary step to improving the craft of observation. Some visual sociologists believe that the field is an inventory of visual research techniques (Wagner 1979a), while others assert that visual sociology includes not only the ethnography of natural settings but also the semiotic (interpretative) analysis of the visual products of a culture and society (Harper 2000). Grady (1996) has argued that social and cultural research with visual materials should consist of many distinct analytic practices, only a few of which have been adequately explored. The most glaring omission in contemporary visual sociology, for example, is a lack of attention to the visual display of quantitative social information, such as maps, graphs, charts, and other forms of visualization (Grady 2006). In his view, visual sociology is as much quantitative as it is qualitative. Finally, Pauwels (2000) states that visual sociologists should develop “visual scientific literacy” to fully exploit the research opportunities that the wide range of visual materials and visual methods make possible. Becoming fluent in visual materials requires several competencies, including a detailed knowledge of how the materials were produced, the bodies of knowledge that study what the materials refer to, and the most accurate and effective ways to communicate visual materials.

Visual sociology today, therefore, is most accurately described—rather than defined—as a broad continuum of interests and applications premised on diverse theoretical foundations, a wide array of research programs, and a varied commitment to sociology as a discipline. In spite of these differences, there is consensus on three major propositions.

First, images are iconic constructions, which means that they are invariably framed representations of something meaningful that somebody created for some purpose at a particular point in time. Thus, not only do images have a history and a politics but also they often have a career, traveling from one context to another, with dramatically different meanings imputed to them on the way.

Second, images contain both behavioral and symbolic information. Thus, whereas all images are produced as acts of human subjectivity for purposes that may not be readily apparent, their very physicality ensures that what is represented is the objective product of a concrete act of representation. All photographs, for example, represent more or less clearly what was framed by the camera at the moment the picture was taken; they also identify the vantage point of the camera and, presumably, the photographer. While analysts may be interested either in the symbolic or behavioral information in the image, the act by which an image is created is one that is inherently both symbolic and behavioral. Indeed, images have often been tampered with to add, remove, or enhance information in the frame, which may be lauded as art or deplored as disinformation. Nevertheless, changes of this sort are testimony to the lengths that the symbolic has to go to discipline the often stubbornly intractable physical grounding of the image.

Finally, images are part of communication strategies. They are usually used to tell, or inform, stories of one kind or another. In addition to the information that these stories convey, the images also have a rhetorical function that is inseparable from their truth values.

Thus, all visual sociologists agree that images constitute rich sources of information about quite varied aspects of social and cultural life and making use of them poses complex methodological and interpretative challenges to the researcher. This fluid consensus has resulted in lively debate, the development of innovative visual methods, interpretative techniques, and other applications that extract meaning from visual data.

More specifically, during the last quarter of a century visual sociology has

  • made important contributions to field research;
  • opened up new sources of primary data for social and cultural analysis;
  • presented a compelling case for including the visual essay as a means of communicating scholarly findings;
  • demonstrated that the new digital media provide invaluable opportunities for research, teaching, and communication; and
  • explored how image-based research can strengthen applied initiatives in the social sciences.

Visual Field Research

Ethnography has been an important part of sociology ever since the University of Chicago sent its graduate students out to explore the human ecologies of complex urban environments. Ethnographers document how people manage their lives in natural settings and identify the meanings that those situations, events, and places have for their participants. Immersion in the field encourages deeper insight into the dense textures of other people’s lives. Photography and film strengthen the ethnographic project by freezing moments of perception, capturing what was in the frame for recall later. While the camera’s frame is not unlike human vision, its focal range is far wider and includes far more details than even the best-trained eye can perceive. Collier and Collier (1986) were the first to point out how useful the camera is in providing overviews of settings, inventorying material culture, and documenting social interactions. They note, for example, that understanding how people actually use technology is a perennial challenge for ethnographers:

Using the camera with reasonable discipline the inexperienced fieldworker can record with accuracy the experience of a sawmill, even when he has a shallow grasp of what is going on. Saturated recording, especially with the 35 mm camera, makes it possible to follow the technological sequence in great detail. On first examination these photographs may contain information too complex for a reasonable understanding, but they can be restudied later when the fieldworker is adequately oriented. (P. 66)

Harper (1986) relies on extensive photography to explore how the principal subject of Working Knowledge, Willy, actually does his work. Other ethnographic studies of work enable us to appreciate how important a “jack of all trades” mechanic like Willy is to a rural community with limited resources and income. But few studies show with such clarity and detail what people like him actually do that makes him so invaluable to his neighbors.

Since Harper incorporated photography into his doctoral dissertation of hoboes—subsequently published as Good Company (Harper 1982)—there has been a virtual explosion of visual ethnographies dealing with varied subjects. These include studies of neighborhoods in transition (Suchar 1993), the homeless (Southard 1997), farm families (Schwartz 1992), and the flow of commodities in a globalizing economy (Barndt 2002) to mention just a few. Brown’s (2001) study of a female impersonator uses photographs to document each step of the process that “Jeremy” takes to transform him into his stage persona “Asia,” while a study of a soccer league shows that

gender specific behavior was virtually non-existent when adults structured the children’s activities through practice drills, team huddles and during active soccer “game time.” However, it was very much present when children were given the time and space to structure their own activities. When left to their own devices—standing in line or during breaks— children separated themselves by gender, and boys and girls acted out different behaviors. (Stiebling 1999:142)

Older photographs can be used as historical materials to document social change, especially if the same scene can be rephotographed from a vantage point that approximates the original as closely as possible. Most such studies focus on physical settings and other aspects of material culture (Caufield 2001; Rieger 1996, 2003). But the technique is valuable for studying more intimate spheres as well. Nixon’s (1999) continuing rephotography of his wife and her three sisters over a quarter of a century and Rogovin’s (1994) chronicling of relationships over as many years yield deeply evocative portraits that link aging to other aspects of change.

In addition to using photographs to document behavior and culture, many ethnographers find that discussing photographs with a subject elicits invaluable information that might not otherwise emerge in an interview. Photoelicitation, as this research technique has come to be called, can be used with photographs produced by either the researcher or others, including the subject. The line of questioning can be closed ended and identify people, places, things, and processes in the image or it can be open ended and serve to jog memory or as a projective technique, eliciting what a respondent values in the image (Harper 2002). Researchers report that photo-elicitation is an effective icebreaker and usually opens up floodgates of information. How much is due to the content of the image itself or to the fact that researchers and subjects usually sit side by side as they view the images, discussing them in a relaxed and conversational fashion while avoiding eye contact, is still an open question.

Notable studies using photo-elicitation include Brown (2001), Stiebling (1999), and Harper (1986). The subjects explored in photo-elicitation studies are quite varied and encompass, for example, perceptions of community (Does et al. 1992), views of the landscape (Beilin 2005), and reading magazine advertisements (Craig, Kretsedemas, and Gryniewski 1997). Gold (1991), in his study of ethnic Vietnamese and ethnic Chinese immigrants from Vietnam, found remarkable agreement between both groups on the visual markers that distinguish them. In addition,

while the older generation . . . discusses ethnic differences with apparently little conscious reflection, the younger refugees appeared to “piece together” their interpretations. Their difficulty in “reading” photos for ethnic cues seems to substantiate the older refugees’ assertion that ethnic boundaries are dissolving in America. (P. 21)

One of the legacies to visual sociology from anthropologists and others is subject-generated imagery (Chalfen 1997:290). In this type of research, recording devices are turned over to subjects. Examples include drawings by children (Coles 1992), their photographs (Ewald 1985), or more ambitious attempts to represent indigenous meanings in different cultures (Worth and Adair 1997). In some cases, the purpose is merely to record whatever captures a subject’s attention; in others, to explore a subject’s perception or experience of a topic of mutual interest. Rich and Chalfen’s (1999) description of why asthmatic patients were given video cameras serves as a template for articulating the goals underlying most projects that use subjectgenerated imagery:

By giving young people a voice in describing their disease and asking them to “teach us about your asthma,” we anticipated that they could help clinicians better understand the worlds in which they live with and care for their illness. We wanted to learn more about how asthma was experienced at home, at school, and at play as part of their daily lives. We wanted to see how they managed the routines of asthma management, responded to asthma emergencies, and how the relationships they had with family and friends might be significant to the illness and its management. We wished to hear how they understood their disease, the particular beliefs they had about asthma, and details of their emotional involvement with this illness. In short, what social, cultural, and/or psychological issues of living with asthma might have been overlooked through previous studies? (P. 52)

New Sources of Primary Data

Sociologists often use archives and repositories of official records as sources of information. But, unlike documentarians and historians, they usually neglect visual materials. In recent years, however, visual sociologists have made extensive use of various collections of photographs and other visual documents. As it turns out there are many of these visual records because, since the first appearance of the camera, individuals, families, informal groups, voluntary associations, and more formal organizations have documented their existence and their activities. The visual materials so produced end up in family albums, shoeboxes, desk drawers, stuffed in cardboard boxes in storerooms, in catalogs, yearbooks, and in official archives of one sort or another. In addition, popular culture has created a vast market for postcards, greeting cards, and myriad other ways of creating visual memorabilia that people use to remember an event, a moment, or a person. Visual sociologists are exploring the research potential of such materials and have discovered just how much of this material exists and how varied it is.

Completed studies include the photographic archives of schools (Margolis 1999, 2004), coal camps (Margolis 1994), churches (Caulfield 2001), newspapers, and family albums (Schwartzenberg 2005). Chalfen discovered rich materials in Japanese visual culture, including pet cemeteries and home memorials (Chalfen 2003) as well as print clubs (Chalfen 2001). Some of the more unusual repositories of information are found in attics and flea markets. Bogdan and Marshall (1997) and Mellinger (1992), for example, use postcards collected in such “archives” to study, respectively, past attitudes toward mental illness and African Americans.

Social scientists who use these materials, however, are careful to determine what they might be evidence “of.” Nordstrom (1992) has shown that ideological/aesthetic notions of what the editors and photographers thought Samoans should look like shaped depictions of Samoans in National Geographic. Hagaman (1993) continues this train of thought as follows:

Newspaper sports feature photographs are highly conventionalized and stereotyped images made by photographers using a limited visual vocabulary to tell a limited number of “stories” . . . These photographs are preconceptualized, that is, they embody ideas about the nature of sports developed prior to experience in the situation being photographed. The limited visual vocabulary being used severely constrains the kinds of ideas and relationships the photographs can communicate . . . The virtuosity of newspaper photographers consists in their ability to make a better version of a photograph from the standard repertoire of already known images. (P. 65)

To the extent that photographs, or visual records generally, are posed or illustrate the poses that people use to manage impressions that others might have of them, then it is possible that what they contain is information not so much about actuality but rather about what people expect that the world and its relationships should look like.

One archive that sociologists have studied in some depth is mass culture. Do advertising images, feature films, and television shows reflect behavior or are they self-interested guides to conduct? Goffman (1979) addresses this issue in Gender Advertisements by underscoring continuity between the fantasy worlds of advertising and behavior, between our ideals and our conduct:

The magical ability of the advertiser to use a few models and props to evoke a life-like scene of his own choosing is not primarily due to the art and technology of commercial photography; it is due primarily to those institutionalized arrangements in social life which allow strangers to glimpse the lives of persons they pass, and to the readiness of all of us to switch at any moment from dealing with the real world to participating in make-believe ones. (P. 23)

It may well be that media representations are documents that trace the links between how we idealize our lives and actually conduct them and that different media provide insight into some dimensions of social and cultural life and not others. Print advertisements, for example, toy with behavioral norms, while television advertising has more room for irony in celebrating or questioning those norms. Feature films not only reproduce the normative order in an even more complex and nuanced form but also permit audiences, as well as social researchers, to explore modalities of style or the possible ways that subjects orient themselves to—as well as manage—the normative order (Fowles 1996). If Goffman is correct that popular media reflects not so much a society as people’s engagement with that society, then the various streams of popular culture might be read most profitably as different reflections of those emotional investments.

The Visual Essay

Documentary photography and film have inspired a growing number of social scientists to expand the storytelling conventions that frame how they conduct social research and report it. This narrative turn tries to make social facts come alive in portraits of real people in real places and concrete situations living, and talking about, their lives. Nevertheless, the capacity of documentary images to dramatically reveal the “felt lives” of situated experience raises concerns that compelling narratives may compromise social scientists’ commitment to developing theory based on valid and representative data. This issue has been addressed by visual anthropologists who have argued that ethnographic film should be distinguished from other documentary genres by framing a film theoretically, exposing the role played by the filmmaker in the making of the film, and developing a shooting strategy that includes as much social and cultural context as possible. Wagner (2004), however, has argued that social science would be better served by highlighting what the two fields have in common:

Documentary photography and visual social research are distinguished not so much by different logics of inquiry as by contrasting social conventions for addressing three key challenges: creating empirically credible images of culture and social life, framing empirical observations to highlight new knowledge, and challenging existing social theory. (P. 1478)

Visual sociologists are more sanguine about crossfertilization between documentary and social research in part because their own work is mostly photographic and documentary. Photographers generally publish their photographs with an accompanying text that establishes contexts missing from the images themselves while also framing how the narrative might have meanings broader than the lives of the subjects depicted in the documentary. It is also important to acknowledge, however, that documentary film has developed numerous conventions for providing missing context. These include narration, voice-overs, establishing shots, and using documentary materials such as photographs, home movies, letters, archival documents, ambient sound, and so on. Documentary filmmakers, unlike photographers, often write comprehensive study guides to accompany the viewing of their films.

Currently, several trends make working in documentary film increasingly attractive to social scientists. First, with digital video and desktop editing, it is technically possible to create broadcast-quality films at low cost. Second, widespread interest in looser and more subjective narrative forms has gained a growing number of adherents within sociology (Berger and Quinney 2005). Finally, social scientists realize that the commitment to developing comprehensive explanations of social and cultural behavior is a collaborative enterprise invariably based on integrating many investigations that are inevitably partial in scope and in method. Documentary film and the photo essay, thus, are arrows in a social scientist’s quiver (Grady 1991).

Visual sociologists increasingly use documentary narrative conventions in photo essays and films that successfully respond to the three challenges to logical inquiry identified by Wagner. Greenblat’s (2004) study of Alzheimer patients in California produces “empirically credible images of culture and social life” (Wagner 2004:1478) that seamlessly fuse documentary technique and sociological analysis. Stehle’s (1985) portraits of the intimate relationships between patients at the Philadelphia Home for Incurables certainly frame “empirical observations to highlight new knowledge” (Wagner 2004:1478), in this case, how love is cultivated within the confines of a total institution. James Ault’s (1987) Born Again and David Redmon’s (2005) Mardi Gras are films that address contentious debates in “existing social theory” (Wagner 2004:1478).

Born Again explores how fundamentalist Christians in a small church in Worcester, Massachusetts, rely on their faith to address many of the moral challenges of contemporary society. Mardi Gras shuttles between the festival in New Orleans and a factory in China, where the beads that are tossed from the floats and highly prized by revelers are manufactured. The sociological study of the social basis and consequences of religious mobilization (Born Again) and the impact of globalization (Mardi Gras) inform the films’ treatment of their subjects. Both films introduce viewers to characters whose lives are richer than a concatenation of their social roles.

Multimedia Research and Reporting in a Digital Age

High-power minicomputers with memory storage capabilities that grow exponentially; sophisticated and powerful software programs performing bewildering arrays of functions for entering, manipulating, analyzing, and communicating images, numerical data, and text; a World Wide Web linking anyone with a connection to vast storehouses of information, expanding at an astonishing rate: All of these are aspects of the digitization of information as it transforms the work place of the social scientist.

Research can be done digitally, on or off the Web. The Web is a vast bazaar of retailers, fan clubs, family gatherings, and porn sites—to mention some of the most popular venues—which are connected to other sites by explicit links or the insatiable appetite of browsers to devour whatever their search engines might ensnare. Nevertheless, while

the Web forms both a unique subject and tool for cultural research . . . serious methodological problems still need to be overcome before these promising prospects can be realized to their full extent. These problems have to do with getting to know the Web population, and how they relate to the rest of the off-line world, and with developing adequate research tools to disclose the varied verbal and visual nature of the Web. (Pauwels 2005:613)

In any event, cameras, minidisk recorders, handheld global positioning system receivers, eye-tracking machines, and many other emerging technologies are giving birth to vast amounts of data as images, sounds, and coordinates of one kind or another. In addition, between conception and hardcopy, this data mostly lives out its life in one region of cyberspace or another, where it congregates in myriad assemblages. Currently, much of what visual sociologists do with this capacity is exploratory and fragmentary. Web sites come and go, some databases are on the Web and available to anybody, while others are either lodged on university servers with restricted access or may be distributed informally on a CD or DVD format. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that the digital revolution has not only expanded the types and amounts of information that can be analyzed but it also makes it possible for scholars to communicate in unprecedented ways (Harper 2004).

Libraries, museums, individuals, trade agencies, and businesses are making available voluminous archives of photographs and other still and moving images that are useful for teaching and research (see Wagner’s compilation of valuable Web sites: ~wagner/vdrLinks.html). Among sociologists, Latour (1998; and Hagaman (2002) have used the Web and a CD format to navigate through complex social networks or intimately personal worlds. Latour uses a “pathway—network—module” model to trace the central processes and sites that constitute the physical infrastructure of Paris. Latour takes the reader/viewer on a tour that links the taken-for-granted visible processes and exchanges of daily life (i.e., an anonymous city worker repairing a street sign) to the invisible command posts that direct and monitor these processes (i.e., control centers in traffic, public works, water and sewer departments). Latour’s narrative consists of meditations explicating the significance of the images he displays. He has developed a format suited to an investigation of physical infrastructures that establishes them as a basis not only for studying urban areas but also to redefine sociological theory.

Hagaman’s (2002) Howie Feeds Me is composed of 14 “sonnets”—sets of linked photographs—documenting the spaces, locales, and associations that constitute the material infrastructure of her relationship with her partner. Steiger (2000) uses 80 photographs to document the human experience of one of the networks that Latour (1998) explores in Paris: Invisible City: a commuter train ride between Basel and Zurich. Visual Sociology, which published her study, also distributed a CD that presented the images as a timed slide show.

More interactive applications of digital technology encourage users to develop, and test, their own ideas about the material. Grady (1999) has created numerous databases for use in the classroom. These include an interactive FilemakerPro database that enables students to identify and archive images to test Goffman’s (1979) propositions in Gender Advertisements about the norms regulating gender displays. Grady has also compiled a database of every advertisement with a representation of an African American, which appeared in LIFE magazine from 1936 to 2000. This database is used by students to study social changes in how race relations are displayed and as a sampling frame for studies of gender and social class representations (Grady 2003). Finally, researchers increasingly use the Web as a research site for interviewing or surveying respondents. Needless to say, questionnaire surveys conducted on the Web can be designed to contain visual materials for elicitation or other purposes.

Some of the world’s most reliable quantitative databases are now online with varying degrees of interactivity. These include the U.S. Census Bureau, the United Nations, and myriad other agencies, which contain numerous social indicators at various levels of aggregation. The University of California Atlas of Global Inequality ( is a compendium of international statistics compiled from various agencies. Also, many Web sites have installed functions to display the data in chart and graph forms. The Census Bureau’s American Factfinder Web site (http://factfinder.census .gov/home/saff/main.html?_lang-en), for example, lets online consumers design their own maps. The screen shot function on most computers is an easy way to copy charts and maps for insertion into a word-processing document. Moreover, quantitative databases often provide commaseparated tables that can be pasted to spreadsheet programs where they can be turned into various kinds of graphs with the chart-making functions found on most spreadsheet programs. Finally, the General Social Survey, which has been conducted since 1972, can be accessed by very user-friendly software (Survey Documentation and Analysis) designed by the Computer-Assisted Survey Methods Program at the University of California, Berkeley (

One of the most important consequences of the increased availability of social indicators and other statistics on the Web is that they can be displayed in the classroom. The teacher, therefore, is able to visualize data—whether in tabular or chart form—and so enlist both the adapted competency of the eye for pattern recognition and the possibility of engaging students in hypothesis testing with quantitative data.

Applied Visual Sociology

Applied social science uses research and analysis to help institutions function more effectively or to document why and how an institution should be transformed if not eliminated. Images have a long history of being deployed to build popular support for policy initiatives by established authorities or for social reform movements contesting such authorities. Films and photographs produced under these auspices are usually propaganda, no matter how beautiful or accurate the information in the finished product might be. There is no necessary connection, however, between using images for political purposes and any political party, tendency, or ideology. Nevertheless, the most influential images in twentieth-century American propaganda have been produced by those affiliated with the political left and its reform agendas. Not surprisingly, much applied visual sociology has advocated for reform or more radical social change. Nevertheless, since its inception as a field, there has been a growing concern within visual sociology that applied work be conducted rigorously and that it be of use to those who variously make, implement, or consume policy (the public). Managing the tensions between policy and science, advocacy and analysis, and providers and clients is as much a challenge in applied visual sociology as it is in other fields.

Many of the sociologists who formed the IVSA were amateur photographers who fell in love with the expressive potential of the medium. They saw themselves as spiritual heirs of documentarians such as Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, and Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and others who had been organized by Roy Stryker to document the social and personal impact of the Great Depression. Nevertheless, interest among visual sociologists in applied work was hindered by the absence of a documentary tradition within the discipline even though Robert Lynd, for example, had prepared training materials for Stryker’s FSA photographers.

However, other related fields, such as anthropology and urban planning, were more sympathetic to the use of photographs and films in applied work. John Collier, for example, was employed during the 1950s in Peru and New Brunswick on rural development projects, which were directed by anthropologists from Cornell University. The urbanist William H. Whyte challenged Urban Renewal policies in the 1960s and founded a new urbanism that emphasized the value that public space has nurtured spontaneous sociability and organic communities. Whyte (1979, 1980, 1988) used time-lapse photography and film in movies and books such as The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces and The City: Redefining the Center to challenge conventional wisdom in contemporary social psychology about the deleterious effects of crowding. His films demonstrated that most people reveled being in close proximity to others and showed that choreographing behavior in public places with complete strangers was easily learned and managed. Wagner drew on this tradition of engaged inquiry in his seminal Images of Information, where a number of contributors used photography as a conscious tool in improving urban design (Wagner 1979b; Zube 1979), architecture (Ellis 1979; Lifchez 1979), and teaching (Krieger 1979).

Three recent studies integrate visual methods into applied social research and design innovative applications. Wakefield and Underwager (1998), in a comprehensive review of the use of visually perceptible images in child abuse investigations, find that many techniques in current use (anatomically correct dolls, puppets, children’s drawings, play therapy, and other projective tests) are generally ineffective and often encourage children to imagine fantasies as real. Those techniques that elicit the most reliable and valid information, however, encourage free recall by jogging children’s memory with photographs or imaging exercises.

Rich and Chalfen’s (1999) project with teenage asthmatics, described earlier, is the first in a series of clinical research studies where patients collect data about their experience of illness and its contexts. Rich and his associates document a lack of congruence between the circumstances of patients’ lives, their health behaviors, and what their physicians know about them (Rich et al. 2000). They also show that while obesity among children and adolescents is most often accompanied by negative health and psychological and social effects, it also has some positive features, including “protection against sexual objectification, physical dominance, and making a political statement” (Rich et al. 2002:100). The Video Intervention/ Prevention Assessment methodology developed by Rich and his associates includes a protocol for shooting instructions, schedule, logging, and coding of videotape (Rich and Patashnick 2002) and is currently being extended to study patients with spina bifida, sickle-cell anemia, and other conditions (

Finally, Powsner and Tufte (1994) have designed a template for digitized medical records that can include more than 1,800 bits of information on a single page. The record is designed in such a way that a health practitioner can not only read the data in each of 24 small repeated graphs with identical formats but also compare them and assess their interrelationships:

Our graphical summary of patient status maps findings and treatments over time . . . and allows for consideration of alternative diagnostic and management strategies . . . Graphical summaries will be especially useful during case conferences or teaching exercises: all the participants, each with a copy, can review the history and treatment. (P. 389)

Such a design eliminates major sources of miscommunication in health care (Grady 2006).

The steadily declining cost of recording and other research equipment makes applied visual research more available to more marginal and less affluent organizations and communities. In addition, more applied work leads to the design of more applications, some of which are customized to the needs of a particular project, while other projects may appropriate technology and techniques used in completely different fields for different purposes.


Close scrutiny of these five separate contributions suggests that visual sociology is not on a trajectory to become a new field of sociology. Rather, it enriches and broadens the prevailing concerns of the discipline. Visual sociologists do many things. One will photograph or film people in their everyday locales as they go about their lives. Another might rephotograph settings, revisit subjects, and use old photographs to document and measure change. Others will talk about photographs they have taken or discovered with those who might have something to say about what they see in the images or remember of the depicted events. Some visual sociologists construct legible charts and graphs that reveal patterns in quantitative data that otherwise might not be apparent and design unconventional ones for quantitative data that might never have been able to be charted at all. Many explore ways to identify, codify, and interpret the flood of images in the mass media that people use to assess themselves, their milieus, and to communicate with others. These are things that visual sociologists do when they observe, interview, and survey. They still take careful notes but will also log their photographs or videotape. They still tape record interviews even when talking with a subject about a photograph. They still conduct surveys, administer questionnaires, and utilize secondary data even as they value aesthetic considerations in visualizing the data they produce. Finally, some visual sociologists make movies or photo essays where they explore worlds that are either hidden or so taken for granted that they might as well have been hidden. All of these practices are what any sociologist would be expected to do if they had been trained to interpret and construct images for research purposes. In such a case, of course, they would be called visual sociologists.

Currently, visual sociologists express little interest in establishing what they do as a field of study in the larger discipline. The IVSA is a satisfactory clearinghouse for the multidisciplinary exchange of ideas necessary for improving visual research methods and image interpretation. Nevertheless, visual sociologists are strongly committed to integrating image-based research and interpretation into sociological training, research, and teaching. The incorporation of the visual into sociology has grown steadily and the pace at which new recording, communication, and data processing technologies are developing ensures that it will continue for the foreseeable future. When the dust clears a more visual sociology will have become a necessary condition of a more robust sociology, and images will have a place with both words and numbers as tools to understand how people do things together and what the consequences of these arrangements are for human welfare.


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